Saturday, June 30, 2012

greed, incompetence and dishonesty

I’ve blogged several times over recent years about such matters as the (lack of) integrity of bankers, the (lack of) ethics of the stock market and the lengths to which those governing this country (especially the current government) seem to have gone to defend the nation’s banking system in the light of public criticism.
You might recall that greedy bankers were one of the principal causes of the worldwide financial crisis (and that WE, not the banks, are principally charged with paying for their “errors”)!
You might also recall how, when threatened by the structural reform of their industry, the Banks responded with messages of “don’t push us too hard – because we’re the best hope of reviving the economy”.
You might also recall how our brave, wise UK government eventually decided on a strategy to split the investment and business wings of the nation’s Banks (note: although it’s been in government for more than two years, legislation has STILL not been forthcoming – the proposed Banking Reform Bill was only announced in the Queen’s Speech in May this year). At the time, the Chancellor was reassuring us all that it was simply the speculative (ie. gambling!) side of the banking industry that had been the problem and that his proposed legislation would essentially solve everything!
Oh, how wrong he was!
Yesterday (and some of us would say “not before time”), the Governor of the Bank of England called for a change in banking culture. This followed a week in which UK banks have been accused of mis-selling personal payment insurance; Barclays was fined £290m for fixing a key interest rate; and the UK's big four banks were found to have mis-sold complicated financial products to thousands of small businesses.  
But don’t worry your silly little heads... because £100billion of public money is about to be poured into the banks via the chancellor’s “funding for lending” scheme. Everything’s going to be absolutely fine, you’ll see!

Friday, June 29, 2012

may/june books

Strangely, I read far less on Iona than I usually do (perhaps my top bunk bed didn’t quite suit my reading habits?):
The Hidden Roads (Kevin Crossley-Holland): Essentially, this is a memoir of middle-class childhood of the 1940s+50s in England. Evocative, poignant and funny. The book initially caught my eye when I saw that Crossley-Holland had been largely brought up at Whiteleaf in the Chiltern Hills – not very far from where we lived in Thame.
Echoes of Memory (John O’Donohue): I love O’Donohue’s writing and this collection of poems – essentially exploring themes of love+loss, beginnings+endings - is just beautiful.
Iona (Kenneth C Steven): Steven has a long association with the west coast of Scotland – and Iona in particular. This short book contains just over 50 poems. He has a very simple, direct style and a lyrical quality that perfectly captures the character of the island and the surrounding area.
The Hungered One (Ed Bullins): This is a collection of short stories from the USA of the late 1960s/early 70s – exploring loneliness and despair (especially in connection with the youth of Black USA at the time). I have to say, I really struggled with it (the style? the subject matter?) and probably should have just put it aside rather than persevering until the end. People apparently talk about Bullins as being a “groundbreaking and historically significant writer” – but, apart from brief glimpses, he didn’t do anything for me I’m afraid.
The Cellist of Sarajevo (Steven Galloway): This is a simply beautiful book. It’s a powerful novel which tracks the lives of three individuals during the horrific Siege of Sarajevo (April 92-February 96). It’s about the human spirit, dignity, grace, civility, pride and a refusal to sink to the inhuman depths of the main protagonists of a war that shamed so many individuals and governments.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

more iona reflections

I’ll obviously continue to reflect on my two months on Iona over the coming days and weeks (and years?), but here are some further thoughts to be going on with:
1.       My last couple of days on the island are a bit of a blur (not linked to red wine, I hasten to add!) – I was conscious that I would be saying goodbye to lots of people who’d become very good friends and also of the need to visit places on the island for the “last time" before I departed. Even though it rained pretty hard in the afternoon, my final morning was a gloriously sunny one and, somewhat ironically, I decided to visit Port Ban (an idyllic, secluded beach just north of the Machair) which, incredibly, I’d NEVER previously visited in all my times on Iona. It was absolutely BEAUTIFUL and, as you can see from the above photograph, it was easy to think I was in some tropical paradise (actually, it DID feel like paradise!).
2.       Volunteers are encouraged to “sign up” and lead Morning Worship in the Abbey church (not as onerous as it sounds – we follow the simple, brief format outlined in the Community’s Worship Book). I’d taken a service a few weeks earlier but, a few days ago, agreed to take Tuesday morning’s service (it seemed appropriate as it was the last morning service I'd be attending). A little time later, it was casually mentioned that BBC Radio 4 would be on the island for three days with John Bell (writer, composer, musician, broadcaster, lecturer, former student-activist and all-round “icon” of the Iona Community – who, it seems, spends most of his time these days sharing his insights in various locations throughout the world) and that “if it was ok with everyone”, they might be recording some of our services in the Abbey church! It took me a little time to realise that “my” morning service might well be one of the “typical” services that they might be recording. Oh, my goodness - what HAD I got myself into?! As you might imagine, it was somewhat unnerving (an understatement!) to discover someone standing next to you during the service holding sound equipment! In addition, and (fortunately) unknown to me at the time, John Bell was also in the congregation – and later congratulated me on the service (being the man he is, I’m sure he’d have said this anyway, even if things had gone disastrously wrong!).
3.       Volunteers also put together Leaving Cards for each departing volunteer. The covers of these are frequently entitled “Iona 2012” and contain an image of one of the large stone crosses. For mine, however, the cover simply contained the word “pink” (and its colour was pink too)… plus a “centre-fold” line of pink paper trousers (click here to see an image)! Clearly, people were much-amused by the sight of an old bloke like me wearing a pair of ancient and somewhat threadbare PINK cord trousers. Surely, this must constitute some form of discrimination!?
4.       Leaving the island first thing yesterday was pretty emotional (Hannah, Wendy and Petr were also departing). Lots of available (ie. not working) volunteers and resident staff members turned up to wave goodbye to us from the jetty (click here for a pic) – and this followed a farewell drink in the Bar and a cake-eating session in Cul Shuna (“our” house) the night before (click here!)
5.       I’m VERY conscious that I am in urgent need of a haircut and that my shoes desperately need some shoe polish!
6.       I’d lost a little weight before going to Iona (long overdue, some would say!). Somewhat amazingly, given the regular consumption of jam scones at coffee time and a whole host of puddings, I’ve actually continued to lose a little more weight (and am probably a stone lighter than I was about a year ago). Is this down to not eating lots of cheese? Standing up all day working in the shop? Less snacking? I really don’t know… but this seems like very good news to me!
7.       Perhaps the only real disappointment was not being able to meet up with great friends Gail+Ian Adams – who arrived on Iona yesterday, some 6 hours after I’d departed!
I think I’ve written about 25 blogposts during my time on Iona. Two of the other volunteers have also been writing blogs and I would highly recommend that you check them out (and they write much better than me!): Lee Ann and Dawn.
Photo: me sitting on the beach at Port Ban.

Monday, June 25, 2012

iona reflections

Tomorrow is my last day on the island.
I’m really looking forward to getting home and seeing family and friends again, but it does seem strange to be contemplating leaving the island at the end of my 8-week volunteering stint with the Iona Community. I’ll be taking with me LOTS of brilliant memories of my time here and, no doubt, some of my thoughts will crystallise and/or develop over the coming days and weeks.
However, in no particular order, these are some initial thoughts:
1. “Carry-Out” meals (from the Abbey kitchen) with Tom in Shuna garden on sunny days – overlooking the Sound.
2. Regular “breakfast” sessions with Beth+Wendy (and Judith in the early days).
3. Walk to St Columba’s Bay with Moira.
4. Being shown the “spouting cave” by Andrew+Tom and seeing the Machair “properly” for the first time from high ground and marveling at the colour of the sea.
5. My lovely shop manager Fiona and her wonderful assistant Dagmar!
6. Hitting golf balls on Iona Golf Course on the Machair.
7. Watching the sunsets from Dun I (and from the North End and from the Machair).
8. My daily walk to work – from Cul Shuna, along the shoreline, to the Abbey.
9. The constantly-changing colour of the sea (and the sky).
10. Watching dolphins jumping in the Sound (just off the jetty) for over half-an-hour.
11. Suddenly being aware of splashes in the water in the middle of the Sound and realising they were being caused by gannets crashing into the water in search of fish.
12. Franziska’s infectious optimism/humour and Damaris’s “hats”.
13. The changing nature of the sky – especially around sunset.
14. The length of the days (over 17.5 hours of official daylight – although, frankly, you could probably have still read a newspaper outside at midnight).
15. Wildlife, especially the birdlife (and the constant sounds of corncrakes, cuckoos, thrushes, and blackbirds)… including the oyster catchers, puffins and the gannets and ACTUALLY seeing two corncrakes!
16. Being in the MacNeil Library (ie. the volunteers’ internet space) and being aware of just how dependent we’ve become on the internet!
17. The amazingly good weather over my 8-week stay (perhaps only 4 or 5 wet/murky days - while the rest of the UK seemed to be suffering quite badly!).
18. Adjusting (surprisingly easily) to sleeping on a top bunk bed for 8 weeks – including my regular trips to the loo in the early hours!
19. Listening to the improvised piano-/guitar-playing in the Abbey church (especially before the services) from Tom, Mo and Becki.
20. The “Sacristy Post-Solstice Olympics” (Wendy+Petr+my farewell “party”)! Oh, good grief!
21. The rhythm of the days and the weeks.
22. Walking past people on the “street” and everyone smiling and saying “hello”.
23. Seeing Moira for the first time for over five weeks on the jetty (very special moment!).
Other stuff:
A:  The other volunteers were an absolutely amazing group of people – with ages ranging from 18 up to mid-60s and from all over the world (eg. USA, Canada, Germany, Finland, Australia, Czech Republic, Paraguay, South Africa, New Zealand, Japan, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England!). Even though our time together was relatively short (very short in some cases – with the “vollies” who left fairly early or late on in my time on the island), we became very good friends. Lots of laughter.  Volunteers AND Resident Staff members (usually with the Community on 3-year contracts) were exceptional people. If ever you needed reassurance about all the positive aspects of life then these colleagues demonstrated it in spades – creativity, intelligence, humility, generosity, sense of fun etc etc. It was a real privilege to have been able to spend time with them.
B:  My little “post card project” (ie. producing 40 sketches/pieces of text on postcards and sending them to 40 friends) has been hugely enjoyable. I would never have thought of involving myself in anything like this, so I owe Ruth an enormous debt of gratitude for her initial idea and her gift of blank postcards and stamps! It certainly gave me some focus for many of my days off (it’s interesting that many of the other volunteers ended up taking up “arty pastimes” too – learning to play musical instruments, jewellery-making, tapestry kits and the like).
C:  I could only afford to go to the “Bar” perhaps a couple of times a week but, after the first fortnight or so, the bar-owner John helpfully pointed out that it would be cheaper for me to buy wine by the bottle rather than a “glass-at-a-time”… and that he would gladly put my name on the bottle at the end of an evening and keep it until the next time I was in the bar. A cunning plan. However, you might not be surprised to learn that I wasn’t actually in a position to hand back any part-used bottles at the end of an evening (John reckoned that this was because I was “too generous” pouring out for other people)! Hey ho.
D:  Working in the shop was absolutely brilliant (ie. my lovely fellow-workers and the nature of the work), but an unexpected bonus of this was constantly bumping into people around the village/in services/walking who recognised me (and/or me recognising them)… and our brief, friendly conversations.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

iona community bookshop

When I volunteered to help the Iona Community, I had to complete an application form. This asked me to list my preferences of the sort of work I would be prepared to do. I said I was happy to “do anything”. In the event, I was assigned to work in the Community Shop (essentially a bookshop that also sells a variety of good-quality local and/or fair-traded products). Although I was delighted by this, I didn’t fully appreciate my good fortune until I arrived on the island and met shop manager, Fiona, and her assistant manager, Dagmar. They are both absolutely lovely people – with a wonderful, open, friendly and happy way of running a successful venture (some big businesses could learn an awful lot from them, methinks!). They both made me feel very welcomed and have been incredibly encouraging throughout my time working with them (and we’ve also laughed a lot!). I’ve also been extremely lucky to have worked with brilliant colleagues along the way (although, due to the nature of volunteering, the personnel changed during the course of my time as a shop-worker): Franziska, Judith, Ann, Daniel and Maddie. We’ve worked hard, but it’s been great fun… and (although I hesitate to say this with only a couple of working days left!) the customers have been pretty amazing too – I can’t recall a single difficult “punter”. People who know me won’t perhaps be too surprised to learn that, as a shop-worker, I was much better talking to customers than actually dealing with the technical niceties of cash tills and the like (although, by the end, I was beginning to become ALMOST competent!!).
Happy times, wonderful people!
Photo: the community shop gang: Daniel, Fiona, Maddie and Dagmar (with apologies for not being able to include the other lovely fellow-colleagues Franziska, Judith and Ann!). x

Friday, June 22, 2012

my little iona postcard project

Amazingly (well, amazing to me anyway), I’ve actually completed my little Iona postcard project – almost a week before the end of my stay. If you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, you might like to see my previous posts on the subject (or maybe not!) - like this one, or this or this
To be honest, I’m surprised how brilliant this has been – NOT in terms of the quality of the resulting sketches and like (which have been somewhat crude in many instances) , but in terms of the focus it’s helped to provide for my “down-time” on the island. I’ve really enjoyed the discipline of creating very quick sketches (20 minute maximum, with only one or two exceptions – postcard size is rather useful in this respect!). Somewhat predictably, I’ve found “architectural” sketches very much easier than landscapes (I’ve found results of the latter very disappointing and incredibly frustrating!). I’ve also found that the use of watercolour pencils has been a simple way of adding very quick colour to my scribbles (applying the water back at “home” in Cul Shuna – and therefore avoiding the need to carry wet sketches with me on my walks around the island!).
Although I would probably have brought a sketch book with me, I would almost certainly only have completed a handful of drawings at most.
So, MASSIVE thanks to Ruth for her original project idea and for her encouragement. It’s been a key part of my time on Iona and will provide a lasting memory of my visit.
Photo: some more of the 40 postcards I’ve sent to friends during my time on Iona (as I say, the quality varies!)… I didn’t photograph them all!
PS: I’ve posted off my last batch of postcards so, if you haven’t already done so, you should certainly have received yours by the end of the month (even allowing for the UK postal service)… if you don’t then, perhaps you’ll have to produce your own substitute sketch version!!  

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

golfing on iona

Unfortunately, Adam+I had to abandon plans for golfing at the Iona Golf Course on Monday evening due to rain (Adam’s now left the island at the end of his volunteering stint). With my days on the island fast running out, I decided to walk to the Machair this morning on my day off (where the golf course is located) to spend a little time sketching and also to take the opportunity to hit a few golf balls.
It may not be Pebble Beach, Carnoustie, Ballybunion or St Andrews, but it WAS absolutely beautiful (and no sheep were harmed in the process!).
Photo: an obliging tourist agreed to take this pic - so Ken, Steve, Pete et al could have photographic evidence!  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Adam is from South Africa. He’s nineteen years old (his birthday was a couple of weeks ago). He’s mad keen on sport (he’s been organising weekly cricket matches for guests on the north end beach and encouraging games of golf on the course at the Machair)(and, believe me, it’s been really tough that England have been losing to the Spingboks at rugby over the past couple of weeks!)… and he’s also gregarious, funny, charming, confident and intelligent with it! I’ve frequently found myself trying to remember how I was as a nineteen year-old and comparing myself with Adam and a whole host of the other volunteers… you won’t be surprised to hear that they put me to shame by comparison!
Adam’s on a gap year before starting university in South Africa. He’s a historian – fascinated, amongst other things, in Roman history and Everest – and is determined to study at Cambridge University in due course. I haven’t the slightest doubt that this will happen. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see him becoming history’s David Attenborough on television before too long… and, to think, I knew him before he was famous!
Adam’s been a volunteer with the Iona Community over the past 13 weeks and we waved him goodbye from the jetty this morning. He’ll be sorely missed.
A great young man… and we’ll definitely be meeting up again before too long.
Photo: jetty goodbyes (from left to right: Joshua, Anne, Julia, Janelle, Karen, Damaris, Beth, Adam, Petr, Daniel and Noelia).

Thursday, June 14, 2012

day off with moira

I’ve been extremely fortunate with fine weather on my days off work. The five-day weather forecast (with Moira joining me on the island this week) hadn’t seemed particularly good – although, thankfully, mainly dry. In the event, we’ve had another good week and, yesterday, it was absolutely beautiful… and perfect walking weather. Moira had been troubled with a bad knee and so, very reluctantly, had decided against going on the “all terrain” 7-mile pilgrimage of the previous day and had opted for the “on road” 3-mile version (which apparently proved to be really enjoyable – and led by my lovely “boss” Fiona). Yesterday, she felt fit enough to opt for a walk to St Columba’s Bay at the south end of the island and we enjoyed a really beautiful walk - via the white sands and the blue-turquoise seas of the Machair – and a picnic lunch at St Columba’s Bay (watching oyster catchers at close quarters, walking the stone labyrinth on the beach and being mesmerized by all the beautiful beach stones!).
We had afternoon tea (and shared a scone, as you do!) in the lovely Heritage Centre CafĂ© garden before going on a guided tour of the Abbey (something I’d been meaning to do for ages!) and then, after supper and the short evening service, walked to the North End to watch the sun going down.
A really lovely day… and great to have shared it together.
Photo: Moira… on the last leg of our walk to St Columba’s Bay.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Moira arrived on Iona on Saturday and it was just WONDERFUL to see her again after some five-and-a-half weeks (the longest time we’d been apart in our nearly 40 years of marriage). On Sunday, we treated ourselves to a night (and a beautiful meal) at the St Columba Hotel. Living life in community has been very enjoyable, but there’s nothing quite like spending time with your lovely wife (and enjoying the odd glass of red with your meal)!
Photo: the view from our room (Bishop’s House and the Sound of Iona… with Mull in the background).

Saturday, June 09, 2012


Today, in the constant stream of toing-and-froings, we said goodbye to Andrew from Iona. Andrew was my first room-mate here on the island and he’s quite an amazing young man (from Winnipeg, Canada – like two other colleagues on the island!) – intelligent, very personable, tall, athletic, adventurous, independent… and a good cook… and a brilliant musician… and with a great sense of humour (oh, and he’s also a wine connoisseur!)!
He’ll be sadly missed by us all on the island.
Photo: Andrew (with Damaris and Julia – who are joining him a week’s holiday to the Isle of Skye, before he sets off to walk Hadrian’s wall… before going on to Germany).
PS: Andrew+I had somewhat different body clocks: Andrew would frequently go to bed after 1pm and wake up late (when he wasn’t on “early” kitchen duty), while I would go to bed reasonably early and get up 5-6am!

Wednesday, June 06, 2012


Some very special people left the island this morning at the end of their stint of volunteering: Tereza, Ann, Krystof and Franziska. Franziska is one of my fellow-shopworkers and so we’ve got to know each other pretty well over the past few weeks (I’ve previously posted a note about the weekly Taize services at the Abbey – which she has been running). She’s definitely a very intelligent, larger-than-life character and she’s made me laugh and smile throughout our time together. Her language skills are hugely impressive – but she was always querying something I’d said and asked why the English used a particular phrase or word… in the end, my frequent answer was simply “because we do” in order to avoid further prolonged (but hilarious) discussion. We play music all day in the shop (usually from the “Wild Goose” stuff we sell) and she was frequently prone to bursting into song herself (sometimes at quite high volumes!)… one day, a customer asked me: “does she work here?” – I was tempted just to shrug and suggest she was just one of our many happy customers, but…(!). The weather on the island has been pretty good throughout my time here (so far) – indeed, on occasions positively balmy. Franziska always seemed to be overdressed (in terms of layers of clothes); on one hot day she proudly announced that she had decided to dispense of ONE of her pairs of leggings (and, indeed, her leg-warmers and her fingerless gloves)!!
Franziska has also become my adopted daughter - she kept referring to me as “Daddy” – so, it’s a great shame that she won’t be on Iona when “step-mother” Moira comes this weekend! 
As you can imagine, there were lots of hugging when we said our farewells on the jetty this morning.
I’ll miss her hugely and am just grateful for the time we worked together.

Friday, June 01, 2012


I had a day off yesterday. It started out pretty grey+wet, so I decided to treat myself to morning coffee at the St Columba Hotel (although, in truth, the coffee turned out to be rather disappointing). But the weather gradually improved, so I went for a walk and ended up sketching near the jetty. Great fellow-volunteer friend Adam had just waved off his friend on the ferry when he noticed some dolphins on the Sound and called me over. So we spent the next 45 minutes or so scanning the water for any sign and being mesmerised by their antics whenever we caught sight of them (perhaps a group of five dolphins in total?)… and a lot of this happened just 100 metres or so away from us too!
Needless to say, I took lots of photographs – but, inevitably, several were just of blue water (with absolutely no sign of ANY dolphins!) or somewhat blurred or just boringly small. However, I felt very fortune to have had half a dozen or so turn out pretty reasonably – and very privileged to have watched those amazing creatures.
Simply wonderful.
Later, in the evening, as if nature hadn’t already excelled itself, I was walking back from the Abbey to my Iona “home” along the shoreline and I spotted a group of gannets soaring into the sky and then plunging down into the Sound (you first notice the sporadic splashes in the water, then you see the blurred white of the birds as they enter the water at high speed). I watched them for about 10 minutes. Sadly, they were too far off for me take any photographs(!) – but the sight of them was quite spectacular.
An amazing day!
PS: google reckons that the collective name for a group of gannets is either a “plunging” or a “company” of gannets!